Wednesday, July 11, 2012
The Key to Being a Great Improviser
I have always been known as a great improviser. Not sure that is totally warranted. Am I good at coming up with something "last minute" and "winging it"? Yes. Am I doing that spontaneously? No.
Here is my assessment of what it takes to be a great improviser...
When I was younger, I was a saxophonist (I guess I still am). I played in my high school Jazz band and loved it. In my first year, I sat next to a guy named, Alex Budman, who was the 1st saxophone. He was an extraordinary saxophonist. His solos were WAY better than mine - by lightyears. Of course, he was two years older than me, but that isn't the only reason. I think I had as much talent and as good of an ear as Alex, but he had learned the key to being a great improviser: BE PREPARED!
That's it. Seriously. Alex had trained so much on scales and the "memorized", non-spontaneous parts of music, that his mind was full of possibilities when the moment arose. Not only were his mind and fingers trained, but he also listened to lots of jazz music and his mind could draw upon many options such as rhythm schemes, chord progressions, texture, and timing options. This made him good. This was something that I did not have enough of at that point (I was never as good as him - he was amazing and I idolized his ability). I did not have the information in my brain or fingers or ears to draw upon. It was like being in a different country and I only knew 50 words to Alex's 20,000. Trust me, the "language" he used to speak Jazz was much better than my basic foreign speak.
So what makes me a great improviser? My constant preparing myself with ideas, knowledge, and skills. I am always busy reading, trying skills, honing my talents, and exploring ideas. In short, I believe great learners make great improvisers - even if it is in a single, specific area, such as the saxophone.
Ever met a person who can improvise in the shop in a way that amazes you (like my dad)? They are great at improvising/innovating because they have spent a lot of time learning what tools to use, and how to use them. They learn about materials and their nature/properties, and have practiced/applied their knowledge enough that they learn the principles that work well and can easily translate all that knowledge and ability into something seemingly spontaneous.
Some people are this way in the kitchen. Know someone who is great without a recipe?
Of course, there are other factors involved in many cases as well - such as natural talents, perhaps courage, ability to communicate, no fear of groups, and many, many more. And some people are pretty good at a certain level with improvising with almost anything (generalists like me), while others are really good in specific areas (specialists - who tend to be deeper experts and better improvisers in that area than a generalist in any area).Either way, preparation is the biggest factor for success in improvising.
Here are three things I would always be doing:
1) Adding Knowledge
2) Building and Honing Skills
3) Practicing, Practicing, Practicing
Then just keep this cycle on repeat.
1) Something to Teach
2) Something to Work on
3) Something to Play
Trust me. This will work. If you feed your mind enough, you will be like a giant library, ready to check out something needed and amaze your friends!